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Reviewed by:
  • Coming Out in College: The Struggle for a Queer Identity by Robert A. Rhoads
  • Kristen A. Renn
Coming Out in College: The Struggle for a Queer Identity Robert A. Rhoads Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1994, 190 pages

When asked if I would take up Coming Out in College: The Struggle for a Queer Identity, I readily agreed to participate in the Journal of College Student Development 60th anniversary series of "re-reviews" of influential works in the field. I first encountered the book when Rob Rhoads published it in 1994, early in my doctoral program, as I was digging deeply into research methods and the then-scanty empirical literature on gay students. Seven years later, I ended up at Michigan State University, in the faculty line Rob held as his first tenuretrack job before moving to UCLA where he continued his highly successful career. In these respects—conducting a landmark study on gay students and in departing a faculty line I would ultimately hold—Rob created intellectual and professional space for me. I had not started rereading the book with an eye to the review when he passed away at age 60 in October 2018. Reading the book anew under this circumstance, I am again struck by Rob's boldness, talent, compassion, and intellectual ambitions.

An Ethnography of Gay College Students in the Early 1990s

Coming Out in College is a book-length account of Rhoads's 1993 ethnographic dissertation, for which he won the 1994 Dissertation of the Year Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Rhoads grounded his study in critical postmodernism, a theoretical approach he and Bill Tierney articulated for higher education organizational studies (Tierney, 1993; Tierney & Rhoads, 1993). In Coming Out in College, Rhoads summarized salient points of using critical postmodernism in his research, including a focus on power embedded in structures, knowledge, and language; the organization of concepts around difference and conflict rather than similarity and consensus; and the inextricable connection of a researcher's positionality, theoretical perspectives, and work. At the time of publication—in the midst of the so-called paradigm wars in education research—this approach was much more radical than it might seem to readers today.

Rhoads undertook an ambitious critical ethnography over 2 years (1991 to 1993) at Clement University (pseudonym). In the first year he read about lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students and issues and made initial contacts with LGB students at Clement. He made friends in the LGB community who introduced him to, for the first time, the word queer as something other than a homophobic slur. Rhoads often went with his LGB friends to the (tiny) local gay bar and the once-a-week "alternative night" at another club. At the beginning of year 2, with a few close friends and now many acquaintances in the LGB student association (LGBSA), Rhoads felt he had the credibility and trust of enough students to undertake ethnographic observations. He went to nearly all LGBSA meetings that year and to queer parties, dances, and movie nights. He hosted a potluck, attended protests, and [End Page 502] went by bus with Clement staff and students to the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Ultimately Rhoads focused his study on men, ostensibly all cisgender, and conducted 40 ethnographic interviews. This scale and scope of ethnographic undertaking brings to mind the work of another colleague who passed away in 2018, Peter Magolda, whose ethnographic studies of a Christian student organization (Magolda & Gross, 2009) and university custodial staff (Magolda, 2016) rank among the best higher education ethnographies I have read. As an instructor of qualitative research courses, I was reminded while rereading Coming Out in College that its underlying study is a strong example of ethnographic research and alignment across theoretical framework, methodology, methods, and conclusions.

Contributions of Coming Out in College

Rhoads's conclusions advanced the field. By providing rich description of "the closet" and of homophobic harassment and violence, he illuminated the isolation and fear students experienced on campus. He vividly described how some of them carefully parsed their lives between home and school and among different communities at school...


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pp. 502-506
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